Google Wave: Pedagogical Success, Technological Failure?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

My “Introduction to Digital Media Studies[1] course combines a critical, historically-oriented approach to understanding the developing relationship between computing and communication with a wide range of hands-on experiences of contemporary networked communication systems.

My students blog throughout the course, and they complete a series of web-oriented projects.My primary goal in having them experiment with these technologies is to get them to think critically about their uses; what goals are enabled by web-based video, for instance, and what is inhibited? What modes of communication work well in a blog-based environment, and what are that environment’s limitations?

I teach in a small, liberal arts college that places a high premium on face-to-face conversations and critical discussions. Throughout the semester, we spend time reading about and discussing critical issues such as privacy and intellectual property online, so that my students can begin the process of thinking not just about the creative freedoms that new online systems promote, but also the ways that those freedoms are constrained.

Because these technologies are not just included among the modes in which our class business is conducted, but also the subject of the course itself, nearly all of our discussions and projects have some self-reflective character. Students repeatedly raise questions during the semester about the technologies they are using and the assumptions that underwrite them.

During the 2010 spring semester, I asked the class to use Google Wave for one key, ongoing assignment. While the project was an unequivocal success, the technology itself has now failed. Exploring both how we used Wave and the reasons for its failure might help press our thinking about teaching with digital media in some productive directions.

Google Wave

The story of Google Wave is in a number of ways exemplary of the best and the worst of technological development: this new mode of thinking about project-based communication promised revolution, and could perhaps have delivered, but a bad rollout, a creaky infrastructure, and a weak sense of its purpose resulted in the project’s development being discontinued before it could even really claim to have been established. The systems that Wave was grounded in were open, however, and are being incorporated into other technologies online, so it’s likely that my experiences of teaching with Wave will remain useful, or will be applicable to other new systems that bring together synchronous collaboration and asynchronous communication. Nonetheless, as Jeff McClurken pointed out to me, my experiences of using Wave in the classroom might serve as a caution against teaching a specific tool rather than a more general process (McClurken).

Google Wave was described by its developers as “a new web application for real-time communication and collaboration” (About) and was in practice part e-mail, part instant messenger, and part collaborative writing software. I first wrote about teaching with Google Wave for Profhacker in June 2010, reflecting on my uses of the system in my Spring 2010 courses. At that point, Wave was just about a year old, but an initial flurry of rather extraordinary enthusiasm among technophiles quickly settled down into disgruntlement (often from those who weren’t in the first round of users to be granted access) and dismissal (from many of those early adopters who found themselves overwhelmed by the system’s many bells and whistles and befuddled by the absence of a clear purpose for them). At the time I wrote about it, talk about Wave had mostly settled down into a series of wry jokes about the fact that the majority of what people did on Wave was talk about Wave, as well as complaints about the too-muchness of the open Wave environment and the too-littleness of actual community within the system.

As I noted, part of the problem was with the system’s rollout: because of the need to bring third-party developers into the process of building extensions for Wave, as well as to ensure that the system would scale appropriately as its user base grew, invitations to join Wave were kept quite exclusive at first, only gradually expanding to include more users. Part of the hope, of course, was that this exclusivity would create buzz among the digerati and excitement among those waiting for accounts; unfortunately, it also created higher expectations about the system’s capabilities than could be met early on. One problem with such a rollout for a system focusing on reinventing email was of course that there was no guarantee that, having received access to the system, users would find someone with whom they actually wanted or needed to communicate. The rollout also inevitably irritated those who found themselves not to be in the elite group of digerati who got first crack at the system. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the developers were right: the system didn’t scale well. As more users were added, the system became increasingly unstable, leading many to abandon Wave before the necessary improvements were made.

But finally, the most crucial problem was perhaps that Wave’s users—and more importantly its evangelists—didn’t have a clear enough sense of what the system was actually good for. The phrase “reinvention of email” rang perhaps a little too loudly in descriptions of Wave, as did comparisons to instant messaging, and connections to social software. These analogies suggested that Wave was meant to serve as a general purpose personal communication tool, updated to facilitate the kinds of social connections that we currently engage through services like Facebook and Twitter. This, I now believe, was a disastrous bit of mismarketing; what Wave was, in fact, was extremely powerful groupware, designed to facilitate the interactions of groups working together on specific projects (which constitutes a fairly accurate description of many college classes).

Marc Parry wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2010 about some of the possibilities that Wave might present for teaching (Parry), but by that point, few such experiments had been conducted. Given that I teach classes in what sometimes gets referred to as “New Media,” though, I figured I had a mandate to have my students experiment with the system and see what it might be able to do for us.

Inspired by Jason B. Jones’s use of Wikis in the classroom (Jones, Wikis), and particularly his wikified class notes assignment (Jones, Class Notes Assignment), I decided to ask my students to use Wave as a means of collaborative note-taking. My plan was a bit more laid-back than Jason’s—I wanted this to be a real experiment—so I described the assignment in the syllabus like this:

Class notes project (10%): Over the course of the semester, you will compile a set of collaborative notes for the class, detailing the important issues from our readings, the main threads of our discussions, any questions that we raise that remain open, and so forth. You’ll use a combination of Google Wave and Google Docs for these notes: Wave for the initial note-taking and discussion and Docs for the final product. Each of you will serve as lead note-taker during at least one class session, though you’ll be expected to contribute to the collaborative notes for every class period.

In order to put this plan into action, however, some preliminary set-up was required:

  • Google accounts: Each student needed an account within the Google system, and they needed to be willing to share that username with me and with the rest of the class. I let my students know that if they had a Gmail account they were willing to share, they could use that, but if they preferred to keep their personal accounts private, they could create a new Gmail account specifically for this class. (However, as I planned on using that account for most of our class communication, they had to swear that they would check this account frequently.
  • Google Group: As I received the students’ Google account information, I would add them to a Google Group I’d created for the class. The primary function of the group was to ease the sharing of basic information, such as announcements, that didn’t require the weight of a full wave—simply email your-group@googlegroups.com, and the message goes automatically to all group members. It also eased the wave-creation process, as I’ll discuss shortly.
  • Google Wave accounts: Accounts on Wave are linked to, but separate from, regular Google accounts, and so these had to be created as well. In January, as I started this process, obtaining a Wave account wasn’t simple; it necessitated receiving an invitation from someone already in the system. So the first thing I had to do was scrounge a sufficient number of invites to hand out. Thanks to some friends, though, I quickly got those, and sent an invitation to each of my students. By the end of the spring semester, this was no longer an issue; Wave account creation was opened, and any email address could be added to a wave.

Happily, all of these Google-facilitated technologies are freely available, but one more key bit of technology was crucial to the process, and it was not free:

  • A networked teaching lab: I teach most of my classes in a laptop-based lab, one that allows me to pull the computers out whenever I want to use them and tuck them safely away when I don’t. This semester, I decided to use them every day, and invited any of my students who had their own laptops to bring them to class if they preferred working on them.

Once all the accounts were created, I added our Google Group as a contact within Wave, and then created our first class wave, showing the class how to do each of these things as well.

As new participants join them, Waves can be added to in several ways, by collaboratively editing an in-process document, commenting on that document, or replying to a threaded discussion. Wave keeps track of who edited what within a collaborative document, much like Google Docs (in fact, Docs adopted its live group editing technology from Wave), which can help facilitate the assessment of collaborative assignments. Unlike Google Docs, Wave has a playback system that allows a participant to see, step by step, how a document has developed.

Wave brought with it a vast range of features, such as sophisticated formatting, embedded gadgets, and so on, and my students quickly started experimenting with those bells and whistles. For our collaborative note-taking assignment, one student was assigned to be the “lead note-taker” each day, responsible for ensuring that all the basic information was accounted for, and for cleaning up the collaborative notes after class. Everyone was encouraged to add in every day, and most days, everyone did. The group note-taking capabilities of Wave thus received the most use, but the system also became a sort of class backchannel, accommodating a range of side discussions, allowing students to build a sense of community even as they participated in classroom discussions.

Wave’s instability produced some frustrations at times, and simply figuring out how it worked was at moments a challenge. At the end of the semester, in conjunction with my course evaluations, I asked my students to assess their experiences with Wave—and every one of them liked it. Several said that seeing their classmates’ notes as class discussion was happening clarified the discussion in process; a few noted that they liked being able to follow the Wave from their dorm rooms when they were sick; many said that they were grateful to be able to return to the notes in the days and weeks after that class session had ended.

As my syllabus noted, I had the idea before the semester started that my students would “finalize” their notes in Google Docs and keep them stored for future use in our Google Group space. As it turned out, however, this did not happen; though extensions that would provide exactly the functionality I had hoped for were made available, I did not find out about them until long after the fact; there was no good source available for information on the many third-party developed Wave plug-ins.  As a result, our class notes remained solely accessible in Wave. When it was announced that Wave development had ceased, I began to worry that those notes would disappear; I have now exported them, but the experience highlights the need for portability and preservation of the work that we do with our classes online.

I was hoping that I would have the opportunity to further experiment with Wave in future semesters, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. My sense at the moment is that I will, instead, substitute collaboration via Google Docs for this note-taking exercise, as Docs now provides a chat function that can support the more informal, backchannel aspects of a group’s interactions. Docs also has a robust range of export functions, allowing students to save these notes in the format they prefer. However, Docs’s familiar interfaces, such as word processor and chat window, may constrain what students do with the system. Part of what was so wonderful about Wave was how utterly unfamiliar it was, forcing its users to rethink their relationships to the groups with which they communicate, placing the groups’ collaborations first. Unfortunately, that unfamiliarity led to Wave being significantly misunderstood, thus preventing the full adoption of the system, which might have facilitated its further development.

Works Cited

“About Google Wave.” Web. 22 December 2010. <http://wave.google.com/about.html>.

“Introduction to Digital Media Studies.” Spring 2010. Web. 22 December 2010. <http://machines.pomona.edu/51-2010/>.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Teaching with Google Wave.” ProfHacker. 1 June 2010. Web. 22 December 2010. <http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/teaching-with-google-wave/24406>.

Jones, Jason B. “Class Notes Assignment.” Web. 22 December 2010. <http://jbj.pbworks.com/Class-Notes-Assignment>.

Jones, Jason B.  “Wikis (part 2): In the Classroom.” ProfHacker. 8 September 2009. Web. 22 December 2010. <http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Wikis-part-2-In-the-clas/22686/>.

McClurken, Jeffrey W. Untitled comment on “Google Wave: Pedagogical Success, Technological Failure?” 11 January 2001. Web. 20 January 2011. <http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/artoflearning/google-wave-pedagogical-success-technological-failure/#comment-31>.

Parry, Marc.  “How to Teach With Google Wave.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 4 January 2010. Web. 22 December 2010. <http://chronicle.com/blogPost/How-to-Teach-With-Google-Wave/19501/>.


[1] See <http://machines.pomona.edu/51-2010/>.

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